Actor Charlie Sheen’s “Winning” already stands out as one of 2011’s most memorable catchphrases. Perhaps it’s also a fitting term to analyze the Arab Spring of 2011.
While Sheen may, or may not come out on top in his battles with CBS over “Two and a Half Men,” he is better off than half-a-dozen Arab leaders who have either been ousted from power or are on the verge of it.
With the Obama administration caught like a deer in the headlights when massive unrest spread throughout the region in January, it has since muddled through, at times sending mixed messages. Ultimately the White House sided with pro-democracy movements, the administration punctuated its support by leading a military campaign against Col. Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya -- an effort that could last months while inviting 80’s-style Libyan terrorist reprisals.
Since the Arab Spring began, 17 countries in the Middle East have been rocked by protests -- led by diverse coalitions encompassing secular youth movements striving for Western-style freedoms, to disenfranchised religious groups seeking power, to anti-American Islamists, and seemingly everything in between.
While governments in Tunisia and Egypt have already been toppled -- those in power in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, remain in critical condition.
Here’s a quick look at who is "Winning" in those six countries:
Tunisia – Where it all began. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell after a 23-year reign over protests started when fruit peddler Mohamed Bouazizi died after setting himself on fire weeks earlier to protest municipal level harassment. A caretaker government is now in place until parliamentary elections are held in July. Despite U.S. support for democracy, on a visit to Tunis two weeks ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was met by hundreds of Islamist protestors telling Americans to mind their own business.
Winning: Too early to tell, though Islamists are frontrunners.
Egypt – Taking their cue from protestors in Tunisa, thousands of Egyptians rose up against President Hosni Mubarak who the White House helped push aside despite his pro-U.S. government track record and peace with Israel over his 30-year reign. A military council now heads a caretaker government, while parliamentary elections could come in September. Since the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organized force in Egypt outside the military, they are poised for a significant role in any new government.
Winning: Muslim Brotherhood.
Libya – Though the White House insists we’re not at war, Col. Qaddafi – whose military is being bombed by U.S., French, British and now NATO forces, insists we are. While nearly everyone agrees that ending Qaddafi’s 42-year rule will be a good thing, the eastern-Libya based rebellion includes those seeking to recapture the country’s seat of power once held in Benghazi by King Idris who Qaddafi toppled in a 1969 coup, but also Islamists and even Al Qaeda fighters.
Winning: With NATO as their Navy and Air Force, Islamists.
Yemen – A key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power since 1978. Battling Iranian-backed Shia Houthi rebels in the north, and an Al Qaeda-backed secessionist movement in the south, plus Al Qaeda itself, Saleh has kept a fragile country together by crafty internal politics and American help. After promising to step down after Yemen’s top general and his own Hashid tribe abandoned him, Saleh now says he’ll stay. Makes Afghanistan look easy.
Winning: A nightmare scenario, Iran and Al Qaeda.
Bahrain – Another key U.S. ally, King Hamad leads a minority Sunni government now challenged by an Iranian-backed Shia majority seeking to rule. As protests swelled and turned deadly, Hamad asked for reinforcements from Sunni majority neighbors -- Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates gladly sent in troops and police. Home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has been the centerpiece of U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf for 40 years. Should the majority rule in Bahrain, those days would likely be over.
Syria – A staunch foe of the U.S. and Israel, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has been a state supporter of terrorism in Hezbollah and Hamas, while also a menace to his own people. Like his father before him, former President Hafez al-Assad, both ruled with an iron fist, keeping in place emergency laws since 1963. Confronting Al-Assad and his minority Alawite sect backed by Iran, the Sunni majority is demanding change. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has suggested another “no-fly zone” if Syria’s brutal crackdown continues.
So while many in the West continue to cheer the Arab Spring, imagining that democracy in and of itself will lead to the type of freedoms which have made our societies successful, they should look at how things are unfolding in reality. A battle looms in most places between hard-line Islamists and Western-style secularists -- we should be actively supporting the latter and not simply leave it up to fate. And while we should pressure allies for much needed reforms, we should not simply abandon them when the going gets tough.
Let’s hope that President Barack Obama starts paying closer attention to who is Duh, Winning.
J.D. Gordon is a communications consultant to several Washington, DC think tanks and retired Navy commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2009 as the Pentagon's spokesman for the Western Hemisphere. For more information on Mr. Gordon visit www.gordoncohenstrategies.com.